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Hugs And Bullets

President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Photo by Milton Martínez,
courtesy the Secretaria de Cultura Ciudad de Mexico.

Mexico’s first-year president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, entered office determined to curb violence with a “hugs, not bullets” policy toward drug cartels, coupled with social work directed at the country’s youth.

The results became clear last week in the streets of Culiacan, capital of the state of Sinaloa and headquarters of the Sinaloa cartel formerly headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, currently a lifetime guest of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons.

During a routine search, an Army patrol located one of El Chapo’s sons, Ovidio Guzman Lopez. Local troops reportedly acted in advance of a planned arrest, arriving at his safe house. Shots were fired from the house, the security forces moved in and the younger Guzman was captured. But the security forces soon found themselves surrounded and outgunned. According to Mexico’s defense minister, cartel gunmen seized at least eight soldiers and a police officer as hostages.

Meanwhile, other street fighters called out by the gang spread chaos and carnage across the city. Witnesses described panic across Culiacan. Footage on social media was reminiscent of a war zone. Authorities gave conflicting accounts of the number of dead and wounded, as well as the number of inmates who escaped local jails amid the bedlam. Police ultimately withdrew without Guzman; a lawyer for the family subsequently told The Associated Press “Ovidio is alive and free.” Lopez Obrador said he backed the security chiefs’ decision to let Guzman go in order to prevent further civilian casualties.

The events last Thursday in Culiacan were just the capstone in a series of encounters in various corners of the country between the Mexican military and the drug cartels and civilian hangers-on who are in their pay. Cartels and gangs have begun to use townspeople as human shields, and the army has had little success dealing with such situations using nonlethal options like tear gas. Together, cartels and those in their employ have sent a clear message that the gangs, not the government, are the ultimate power in the Mexican street.

As long as the authorities don’t interfere with their lucrative businesses, the gangs seem content to let a semblance of normal life proceed. When the government gets in the way, all of civil society can be taken hostage. Lopez Obrador’s hug is being met with a reciprocal embrace, but the other party has a gun tucked in its waistband.

As Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico’s intelligence agency, told The Wall Street Journal: “The only thing worse than trying to capture a drug lord without a plan and setting off urban warfare is trying to capture a drug lord without a plan, setting off urban warfare, and letting him go.”

We Americans are inclined to think we can only watch the spectacle from afar, meting out the occasional justice of imprisoning a drug lord in our more secure facilities. But when we dig to find the root of the Mexican mayhem, we strike a rich vein of U.S. dollars.

Our drug laws fuel the industry on both sides of the border. Nobody is fighting for control of American street corners in order to sell milk or T-shirts there. Or even liquor or cigarettes. When products, including dangerous and unhealthy ones, are available through legitimate channels, illegitimate ones dry up. Take away the big money to be earned by satisfying forbidden desires, and the big weapons will go away too.

Of course, the fear is that if we didn’t have laws banning all sale of heroin or cocaine or meth or (still, at the federal level) marijuana, our cities would be awash in those scourges and our youth would suffer. So we ban them, and we have built an entire military-security complex on both sides of the border to enforce the ban.

How is that working out?

Despite all the financial and human costs, anyone who wants any of the banned substances can readily find them. Our biggest accomplishment has been to create a huge and lucrative market for criminal gangs. They don’t fear the police and they don’t fear the Mexican state. What they do fear, you can be sure, is a reversal of the government-mandated monopoly that keeps them in business.

Hugs are not going to win control of the Mexican street; so far, they have been even less effective than the prior policy of brute force. Our federal authorities did not put the bootleggers out of business during Prohibition, either. What did put them out of business was repeal.

There were no Americans involved in last week’s gun battle in Culiacan, as far as we know. But it would never have happened without us. Someday, maybe we will adjust our laws to conform to the way the world really works.

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